Critics both left and right (such as Timothy Noah) are pretty down on the president’s acceptance speech. The consensus is that Obama’s speech was easily the weakest of the convention’s speeches, ranking well behind those of Clinton, Biden, and even the First Lady. So I’ve noticed that the MSNBC types have been saying that the convention was a success as a whole.
And so it was. But the whole is composed of parts, and only one of the parts is running for reelection as president. President Clinton did a great job connecting Democratic presidents from FDR through Kennedy to himself with prosperity. Thanks to his administration, he reminded us, the Democrats presidents collectively whip the Republican presidents collectively on the prosperity front over the last several decades. But we wonder, of course, how well the current president fits the prosperity profile of FDR, JFK, and Clinton. Clinton’s answer: Not yet, but it’s not his fault. He’ll kick in soon. Not a ringing endorsement, if you think about it. Clinton might have mostly reminded us that the current president—despite his rhetorical gifts—hasn’t proven himself to be an FDR or JFK. Unlike FDR or President Clinton, his reelection, if it happens, won’t be a ringing endorsement of his record.
The Democrats noticed that Republican nominee Romney failed to give thanks for the heroic service of our men and women in the armed forces. That was a real error—one, to tell the truth, that called attention to Mitt’s lack of military service and foreign policy experience. Of course the president had neither when he was elected, and in his own opinion he’s gotten the foreign-policy job done nonetheless.
Biden ave a really excellent speech all about our warriors and workers. And he thanked them both—but especially, of course, our warriors—effusively and repeatedly for what they’ve done for our country. We almost forgot that Joe himself had only briefly been a worker and never a warrior. His three big points were expertly chosen: Detroit’s Alive, Bin Laden’s Dead, and Ryan’s Voucher Care Ain’t Medicare.
Lots of pundits advised Barack to dump Joe, and they were all wrong. Biden may be the only member of either ticket who can compellingly play “a real guy,” a guy appealing to the Reagan Democrats. Well, I may be underestimating the hunter and fisherman Ryan. We’ll see.
The very liberal Noah of the New Republic compared the president’s strangely disappointing speech with the whiny 1980 rhetoric of the underachieving Democratic one-termer President Carter:
We’re dangerously close to Jimmy Carter territory here. First, there’s the boast (“You elected me to tell you the truth”) disguised as an expression of humility (“I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy”). Later, I actually winced when Obama humblebragged, “And while I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’” Just because our greatest president was a bit depressive, that doesn’t mean we want the present one to lacerate himself over his failures, and we certainly don’t want to hear him tell us about it.
Nothing the president has faced, of course, can be compared with the bloody mess that brought Lincoln to his knees. And Obama less confidently declared victory than asked for more time. He also came sort of close to playing Carter’s famous “malaise” card, what overcomes the country in the president’s eyes when the people don’t gratefully experience change they can believe in.
It would be easy to overdo the comparison between 2012 Obama and the 1980 Carter. Certainly Romney doesn’t have the charm of Reagan. And Obama's speech retained some of his legendary confidence and wit.
We might want to say that Clinton and Carter represent two Democratic presidential extremes. Clinton certainly exudes, especially in retrospect, domestic confidence and competence, and he was and is refreshingly light on the moralism. But we have to add, to put matters politely, that he was and maybe still is way too roguish to be everything we might want in the nation’s leader. Carter was and is the opposite of a rogue, but we remember his schoolmarmish moralism much more than his successful or even adequate record of accomplishment. We remember why he wasn’t reelected. An exemplary Democratic president might be a huge dose of Clinton mixed with a small dose of Carter. Can we at least suspect that the president is in a bit of trouble because his campaign mixture, right now, is all wrong?